Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why Heirloom Tomatoes Taste Better

Photo courtesy of Stuart Spates, A Clear Image Photography

I have such delicious memories of the first tomatoes of summer - the ones that came from my daddy's garden. Nothing rivals the flavor of home-grown tomatoes. But with the advent of locally grown, heirloom tomatoes, I've been surprised by just how much more flavorful they are than even my fondest memories.

Ironically, according to recent scientific research reported in the New York Times, flavor is the price we pay for those juicy, red tomatoes we crave.
The unexpected culprit is a gene mutation that occurred by chance and that was discovered by tomato breeders. It was deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes because it conferred an advantage: It made them a uniform luscious scarlet when ripe.

Now, in a paper published in the journal Science, researchers report that the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato. And these findings provide a road map for plant breeders to make better-tasting, evenly red tomatoes.

The discovery “is one piece of the puzzle about why the modern tomato stinks,” said Harry Klee, a tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was not involved in the research. “That mutation has been introduced into almost all modern tomatoes. Now we can say that in trying to make the fruit prettier, they reduced some of the important compounds that are linked to flavor.”

The mutation’s effect was a real surprise, said James J. Giovannoni of the United States Department of Agriculture Research Service, an author of the paper. He called the wide adoption of tomatoes that ripen uniformly “a story of unintended consequences.”

Breeders stumbled upon the variety about 70 years ago and saw commercial potential. Consumers like tomatoes that are red all over, but ripe tomatoes normally had a ring of green, yellow or white at the stem end. Producers of tomatoes used in tomato sauce or ketchup also benefited. Growers harvest this crop all at once, Dr. Giovannoni said, and “with the uniform ripening gene, it is easier to determine when the tomatoes are ripe.”

If you don't know what you're missing, you'll find heirloom tomatoes at Boggy Creek Farm among other local, organic, sustainable farms.
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